USC, which once shunned Jews, now welcomes them

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LOS ANGELES — Before World War II, the University of Southern California had a numerus clausus, or quota, system for its professional schools that was strikingly simple.

One Jewish student was admitted to the medical school, one to the dental school and one to the law school.

The statistics were updated recently when Dr. Steven B. Sample, president of the private institution, hosted a luncheon for Jewish community leaders.

Currently, the Jewish presence on campus encompasses 2,000 to 2,500 students, or 8-to-10 percent of the total enrollment, and one-third of all deans and professors.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the academic standing of USC — once known mainly for its athletic prowess — has risen sharply in the last few decades.

"The Jewish contributions have been immense," said Sample at a campus luncheon. "Our ties to the Jewish community are as strong as those of any other American university."

Founded by the Methodist Church in 1880 and long considered inhospitable to minorities, the USC turnaround has been startling. As recently as the 1970s, USC elicited howls of protest from the Jewish community when it announced establishment of a Middle East Studies Center funded entirely by Arab oil money.

The center, delicately described by Sample as "a misstep," was stillborn and the money returned to its donors.

The transformation of USC can be credited to a number of factors.

One is the change in American society from the pre-World War II era, when job listings in the Los Angeles Times routinely carried the proviso, "Only whites and Christians need apply."

Another is the advent of a more enlightened leadership at USC, which was also not unmindful that its Jewish alumni tended to be unusually successful and generous to their alma mater.

Not least is the work of Joseph Roos, who was hired 15 years ago as a community relations consultant by the university.

The 87-year old Roos, a legendary pioneer in battling anti-Semitism and hate groups, was honored at the luncheon with a USC Lifetime Achievement Award for his "tireless dedication in fighting injustice and as a model for service to the community."

Currently USC offers a Jewish studies curriculum attracting 500 undergraduates, including many non-Jews, active academic exchanges and joint studies with the neighboring Hebrew Union College, a relationship Sample hopes to extend to HUC's new Skirball Cultural Center; plus ties to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University.

Sample is working toward a Jewish Studies Center and fund-raising is underway for an endowed chair in Jewish studies.

USC also offers plenty of Jewish activities for students. Joey Nussbaum, a senior in the cinema school, cited his own case history as a four-year student on campus.

Starting as a lonely freshman, Nussbaum was invited by campus Hillel director Rabbi Susan Laemmle to an erev Shabbat celebration.

Now president of the USC Jewish Student Union, Nussbaum worked with Hillel and with others to found or strengthen an annual Jewish Awareness Week, a Jewish Filmmakers Forum, residential Bayit and SChalom housing with kosher kitchens, Rosh Chodesh celebrations for women, and joint dialogue groups with Arab and African American students.

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent